Almost a year ago, I wrote this post critiquing a claim that Paul Knitter made in Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis Books, 2002) about there being no Church Mothers, or at least no evidence of them. Recently, Elizabeth drew my (and many of our friends and colleagues) attention to an equally frustrating claim made by Fergus Kerr in his Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (Blackwell, 2007). Namely, in his chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar, Kerr writes:

Balthasar is, however, very adventurous in his theological speculations. Few, if any, theologians or philosophers have ever owed anything, intellectually, to any woman. Balthasar, however, insisted that he owed his most distinctive theological insights to Adrienne von Speyer: ‘On the whole I received far more from her, theologically, than she from me’; ‘her work and mine cannot be separated from one another either psychologically or theologically. They are two halves of one whole, with a single foundation at the centre’ (p. 134).

There is so much to be frustrated with in this claim that I’m having a difficult time trying to begin my critique of the idea that few theologians ever owed anything–intellectually, theologically–to women.

I think that the best place to begin with this is by quoting my own blog post from last year in my discussion of evidence for Church Mothers:

The other significant text that comes to mind in this case is the teaching of Macrina in On the Soul and the Resurrection (c. 380 CE), written by her brother Gregory of Nyssa. This text is a little more ambiguous because the words are Gregory’s, not Macrina’s. But, whether or not they are Macrina’s own words, the fact that her brother attributed them to her remains significant. What would Gregory gain by claiming that these thoughts are those of a woman and not his own? He identifies Macrina as Basil the Great’s sister “the Teacher” (In Her Words, p. 48) and proceeds to explain a sophisticated theological discussion about the soul, the period of purgation that the soul will undergo after death, and an idea of universal salvation. Macrina was supposedly called “the Theologian” by her brother, which is particularly significant in that, over 1000 years later, in France, the Abbot of Saint-Cyran referred to Agnès Arnauld as la théologienne with a direct reference to Gregory and Macrina as a model.

Now, a few additional comments come to mind about this in relation to Kerr’s claims about Balthasar. First of all, it’s clear from Gregory of Nyssa’s text that his claim to have a theological debt to Macrina is not as explicit as Balthasar’s claim to have a theological debt to Adrienne von Speyer.1 But, this debt is clearly implied. As I note in the passage above, he identifies Macrina throughout this text as “the Teacher,” giving her authoritative status. The text itself is written in the form of a dialogue between himself and Macrina as the teacher. Throughout, he questions her and she corrects him, for example:

What then, I asked, is the soul? Perhaps there may be some possible means of delineating its nature; so that we may have some comprehension of this subject, in the way of a sketch.

Its definition, the Teacher replied, has been attempted in different ways by different writers, each according to his own bent; but the following is our opinion about it. The soul is an essence created, and living, and intellectual, transmitting from itself to an organized and sentient body the power of living and of grasping objects of sense, as long as a natural constitution capable of this holds together. (In Her Words, p. 51)

From my perspective, the theological debt owed to Macrina is clear. Even admitting–as I did in my original post–that the text itself was written by Gregory of Nyssa, not Macrina, so we cannot know how much he may be attributing to her ideas that were not her own, I ask again: What possible benefit would a male theologian have in attributing these theological ideas to a woman when they were really his own? That is, in a patriarchal society where women were not seen to be worth as much as men, what possible motivation could Gregory of Nyssa have in attributing these words to his sister if they were actually his own? Maybe there is a way to answer this question in a way that makes some sense in a patriarchal context, but I cannot think of one.

So, there’s an example of one other male theologian who owes an intellectual debt to a woman, though not as explicitly as Balthasar claimed in the twentieth century. Without going into all these examples in detail, I can think of many women who were associated with male theologians throughout history: Jerome and Paula, Augustine and Monica, Abelard and Héloïse, Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen, Francis and Clare of Assisi, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, to name several of the top of my head. And yet Balthasar’s association with Adrienne von Speyer is “adventurous”? Although we do not necessarily have explicit evidence that the women in all of these cases had a theological influence on the men, I just have to name Kerr’s sin in assuming–also without evidence–that they did not: sexism. Why do we assume that these women did not influence their male colleagues intellectually? Why do we assume that the men took an active role and the women a passive role in transmitting knowledge?

My first guess is that women’s theological influence has been disregarded because of the history of associating women with heresy, starting with Jerome and continuing throughout the history of the church.2 This happened during the Jansenist controversy in seventeenth-century France and you can see continuing evidence of this in the comments that we receive here at WIT on some of the more controversial topics that we’ve written about.3

There needs to be more recognition of the role that women have in shaping the theological tradition instead of just the assumption that women, precisely because they are women, could not ever have had any theological influence. I know that this is getting much better, but the voices of women are still considered a specialized topic to be addressed by feminist theologians. There is a reason why when I taught the history of Christianity that I made an effort to incorporate women into every class where my colleagues who were also teaching the course more frequently added a lecture or two on the role of women at different points of Christian history. It is the same reason why the comments I received from students about my incorporation of women’s writing and perspectives into Christian history tended to lead to one of two responses: either that I was a crazy feminist or that students valued this aspect of the course because most theology courses leave out the perspective of women.4

It is 2017. I should not feel such an urgent need to still defend the inclusion of women’s voices as a part of studying the Christian theological tradition.


  1. For Macrina, I will be referencing the translation that I’ve used in teaching in the past, from In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, edited by Amy Oden (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994). 
  2. See Virginia Burrus, “The Heretical Woman as Symbol in Alexander, Athanasius, Epiphanius, and Jerome,” The Harvard Theological Review 84, no. 3 (1991): 229-48. 
  3. I have a post in the works about this, but it will be a while before something comes out from it. 
  4. The idea that just including women’s voices in the history of Christianity makes me a crazy feminist enrages me in the same way that Kerr’s claim about Balthasar does. 

One thought

  1. FWIW I have major differences with Kerr’s treatment of Balthasar on other matters that aren’t relevant to the present discussion, and to be honest, even though I’ve read the Kerr article in question (even critiqued it in my dissertation!), until I read this post I don’t think I ever even bothered to notice the breathtakingly dismissive and unhistorical lines from that article that you’re critiquing. But I totally agree.

    Admittedly I don’t know Adrienne well at all. I know that Balthasar scholarship tends to sidestep Balthasar’s own claims about the indivisibility of his work from hers. I also know that a lot what was distinctive about his approach was already in place before he met her. But I also know her work is another whole world of texts, and he functioned not just as her spiritual director but as her secretary (!). Interesting, in the “Theo-Drama,” when he gets around to the volume on eschatology, he primarily cites Adrienne.

    Another interesting thing on Balthasar which basically nobody explores: His mother, Gabrielle. She was an incredibly influential teacher, organizer, lecturer, and author in her time. She founded the largest Catholic women’s organization in Switzerland, was a tireless advocate of the lay apostolate (just like Hans was later), and spoke about the “double mission” of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal (there’s another theological tandem for the list!) in just the same ways Balthasar later spoke about his own “double mission” with Adrienne. In my dissertation research, Gabrielle actually turned up in a couple books that had nothing to do with Balthasar or theology. He famously credited his priestly calling to his mother’s piety, prayers, and early death, but still nobody follows up on this. Gabrielle was the major religious influence in the family (Hans’ sister Renee also took vows incidentally). So while I don’t know enough about Balthasar and Adrienne to offer much worthwhile, I am sure there would be no Balthasar without Balthasar’s mother.

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